America and Drugs: Past and Future

The founding of America and the exchange between the New World and the Old brought a vast, new array of drugs for Americans and Europeans to use and abuse. Tobacco, cocaine, caffeine and sugar all entered the European diet within a century of the arrival of Europeans to the New World. Europeans were the first to abuse tobacco, which had been largely a sacramental drug in Native American cultures.

Opium and America

Opium entered the American market in the late 19th century brought on barges from China, where Great Britain had fought a costly war to maintain the lucrative trade. By the turn of the century, opium dens could be found in nearly every American city, although particularly on the West Coast, closest to the source in China. Doctors recognized the usefulness of opium as a pain-reliever and isolated the active compounds into morphine and heroin. Medical practitioners believed that morphine and heroin would have the same analgesic effects as opium without its addictiveness: they soon discovered how wrong they were. Heroin has retained its place as one of the most addictive substances known to man for over a century since its discovery, and most drug-treatment programs in the United States are geared toward treating some form of opiate addiction.

The high point of drug abuse in the United States came in the late 1970s. After the Summer of Love, the sexual revolution, and the counter-cultural movement, drug use and abuse became more widespread and socially acceptable than ever, and Washington responded with a new round of laws and departments to deal with the crisis.

Marijuana, LSA and Psychedelic Mushrooms

As Marijuana, LSD, and psychedelic mushrooms swept through the party culture, President Nixon declared “War on Drugs” in 1971, founding the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and initiating an era of harsh penalties and lengthy prison sentences for drug dealers and drug users. In the forty years since, the United States has instituted one of the harshest set of drug laws in the world, encouraging other countries to do the same. Only a handful of countries, mostly in Asia and the Middle East, maintain harsher penalties for drug use, possession, and sale than the United States.

Drug Use in America

Drug use in America has been going steadily down since the late 1970s, and is now at one of its lowest recorded levels in American history. Drugs of all kinds are still available in nearly every American city and town, but the threat of long prison sentences has kept use and abuse on a downturn. While proscripted drugs went out of fashion, new drug use has come into the void. MDMA for LSD, ADHD prescriptions for cocaine, and painkillers for the opiates.

And yet with all the warring on drugs, there has never been a comprehensive, national substance abuse treatment program in the United States. Treating drug addiction is left to counties, states, and private institutions, and ultimately, to the family members of the addicted. Addiction has consistently been portrayed as a moral problem — not a medical one.

But recently, the growing body of knowledge about neurological and chemical factors of addiction, is beginning to turn the tide toward greater understanding and compassion for drug addicts and their families. New strategies targeting neurotransmitters and new pshychotherapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy operate closer to the root of addiction. In another twenty years, medication and therapy may make chemical dependence a thing of the past rather than a physical disability.

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